Rebuke for Religion-Driven Policy

August 11, 2009

A Roman Catholic college in North Carolina discriminated against employees by denying them health care coverage for contraceptives, and then retaliated against those who complained, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined.

Belmont Abbey College, which was founded by Benedictine Monks, changed health care coverage in December 2007 to exclude oral contraceptives, abortions, vasectomies and tubal ligations. That decision drew the rebuke of at least eight faculty members, who filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. After first denying the discrimination complaint in March, the commission reversed its decision in a July 30 letter.

In its letter, the commission noted that failure to cover oral contraceptives constituted gender-based discrimination because it denied a benefit to women only. The commission did not find evidence, however, to support the claim that employees had been discriminated against based on their religion, since the policy applied to employees regardless of their religion.

In accordance with its own policies and federal law, the EEOC would not confirm or deny whether it had ever received charges, pursued an investigation or issued a ruling. As such, there's no indication of why the commission changed its determination.

When faculty members first challenged the revised Belmont Abbey health care plan, President William Thierfelder sent an e-mail message to students and faculty and staff members identifying by name the eight people who had complained to the EEOC. That action prompted faculty complaints of retaliation, and the EEOC agreed.

“Clearly, the president could have explained why the college was taking contraception benefits out of its new employee health insurance policy without stating each of your names as the persons who filed the charges,” Victoria Mackey, the EEOC senior investigator into the complaint, wrote in a March 5 letter to those who brought the charges. “By disclosing your names, a chilling effect was created on the campus whereby other faculty and staff members would be reluctant to file a charge of discrimination with the commission against the respondent for fear that their name would be in a memo from the president to faculty and staff at the college.”

Belmont Abbey officials did not respond to interview requests, but Thierfelder issued a statement late Monday afternoon. He denied that the college had discriminated or retaliated against anyone, and said the college would ask the EEOC to reconsider its decision yet again.

“We are disappointed that this matter has taken this very unusual twist, but we remain committed to ensuring that all of the college’s policies and practices follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, which includes valuing all life and treating individuals with dignity and respect, and providing equal opportunities for all,” the statement said.

Belmont Abbey employees and students are not required to be Catholic, and many of them aren’t. David Neipert, who was among the faculty members to file complaints, says he asked before he was hired whether being not Catholic would present a problem, and the president himself said it wouldn’t be an issue. But when Neipert challenged the health care coverage change, he says, he quickly felt discriminated against. Then an associate professor, Neipert says he was denied a promotion to full professor shortly after the controversy erupted.

While the EEOC didn’t find evidence to support the allegation that the promotion was denied because of religious discrimination, Neipert says he certainly thought his outspokenness played a role.

“It sounded to me like ‘You ain’t Catholic; you’re not going anywhere,’ ” Neipert said.

Neipert says the debate over health care, coupled with continuing tension between faculty members and the administration, were enough to make him want to leave Belmont Abbey. He’s now a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M, where he teaches courses on international trade. The move cost Neipert a cut in both salary and rank, but he says “I just got tired of being in the middle of the boiling pot.”

Others who challenged the policy change, however, are staying put. Janette Blandford, an associate professor of philosophy and a practicing Catholic, says she wants to continue teaching at a Catholic institution -- just not the kind Thierfelder envisions.

“He’s not open to any form of Catholicism except his own twisted brand,” says Blandford, who does not subscribe to the church’s teachings on birth control. “I’m staying. He’s got to go.”

Thierfelder holds a doctoral degree in sports psychology and human movement from Boston University, but he came to Belmont Abbey from the business world. A former Olympic athlete, Thierfelder was president of York Barbell Company in York, Pa., before he became head of the college. His somewhat nontraditional background has led to a disconnect between Thierfelder and the faculty, according to Blandford. Blandford, who has tenure, says she expects the relationship to get rockier in the wake of the EEOC ruling.

“Do I think he’ll make attempts to do [retaliatory] things? Yeah,” she said. “Do I think he’ll fail? Definitely.”

State Law Has Religious Exemption

North Carolina is among at least 24 states with laws mandating that insurers that cover prescription drugs also cover any contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

While the state’s law does provide an exemption for religious organizations, it narrowly defines what constitutes a religious organization:

  • The entity must be organized and operated for religious purposes and be tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.
  • The inculcation of religious values is one of the primary purposes of the entity.
  • The entity employs primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity.

Faculty who complained about the health care coverage changes say Belmont Abbey fails to meet most -- if not all -- of the criteria for an exemption. While the college is a 501(c)(3) organization, most of the employees are not Catholic, and religious indoctrination is not the college’s primary aim, according to Blandford.

There are about 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, but the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities does not track how many offer insurance coverage for contraception. The association's president also declined to comment on the details of the Belmont case.

While Belmont Abbey has indicated its intention to challenge the ruling, the EEOC will move forward with conciliation efforts, according to its policy. The details of the proposed settlement are confidential, but one faculty member said the agreement provides monetary compensation for retaliation and requires the college to reinstate its insurance coverage for contraception. Faculty members could also bring their own legal action in federal court.

Regardless of what happens next, it’s clear that the professors who challenged the policy see something of a victory already. Jim Giermanski, a now-retired faculty member who complained to the EEOC, says he’s “delighted” with the outcome.

“A finding of discrimination and a finding of retaliation are serious,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Complying with the law is also a serious matter.”

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